(TNS) — Imagine the battlefield of the future. Think of something out of the movies: night-vision goggles zooming in on targets and providing a Terminator-style display of data. Body armor stronger than Kevlar, lightweight and flexible as a windbreaker.
Unmanned ground vehicles infiltrate hostile territory assisted by waves of robots scanning the landscape and relaying data back to human soldiers — or even unleashed to fight.
It’s not in Hollywood where the Army is seeing the future, but about 300 miles north in Silicon Valley. Or anywhere else the military can find a few good engineers, software developers and robotics designers.
Getting the Army to this new high-tech era will be the task of the recently announced Army Futures Command. And that new command has a chance to be located in Texas.
Dallas is one of 15 cities that have emerged as finalists for the Futures Command’s new headquarters. Two other Texas cities, Houston and Austin, are also on the list.
“Dallas is thrilled to be a finalist city for the Army Futures Command headquarters,” said Mayor Mike Rawlings. “Our city offers the workforce, educational and research institutions, infrastructure and quality of life to provide a strong foundation for the Army Futures Command to thrive.”
The new command will take charge of the Army’s six top modernization priorities, including long-range tactical missiles, the next-generation of combat vehicles and helicopters, air-and-missile defense and “soldier lethality,” which includes the Army’s next rifle.
Once upon a time, the military was synonymous with innovation and new technology. But the accelerating pace of change is at odds with the slow-moving, deliberate process inherent in the military culture.
Army leaders describe the Futures Command as a “hoodies and jeans” alternative to the stuffy, spit-and-polish culture of a traditional Army post. They want to create the kind of disruptive innovation emblematic of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial culture to help them build the Army of the future.
And to do that, they know they have to go where the talent lives.
“We want this headquarters to be located near leading academic and commercial institutions to harness the best talent possible in emerging technology and innovation,” Army Undersecretary Ryan McCarthy said in a letter to the House Armed Services Committee.
“A lot of technology’s whiz kids aren’t as interested in going through all the security gates and parameters of a place like Fort Hood,” said Col. Patrick Seiber, a spokesman for the Army task force mapping out the new command.
“But if you had a downtown office next to Reunion Tower that was not far from SMU or some of these other places, you might have more folks saying, ‘Hey, I want to give this a shot,’” Seiber said.
A decision by the Army on where it will locate the Futures Command headquarters is expected as early as the end of June. The Army has already begun scheduling site visits.
A five-member Army team is scheduled to visit Raleigh, N.C., and Boston this week, an Army official confirmed. The official, who did not have authority to speak on the scheduling of visits, said the Army is giving only a few days notice to cities it plans to visit.
“I don’t know how many they’ll visit,” the official said.
Said Rawlings: “We’ve been working closely with Army officials to respond to all their questions and show them all that Dallas has to offer.”
For more than 15 years, the United States has been involved in wars of counter-insurgency in the Middle East and Central Asia. As a result, the rest of the world has seen the Army’s playbook.
The Army can’t win by fighting tomorrow’s battles with yesterday’s army. It has to adapt.
“So we’ve had to take a look at what we are doing now and what’s ahead in the future,” Seiber said.
In the future, soldiers will work as highly skilled technicians in a battlefield integrated with artificial intelligence and robotics. From new rifles to helicopters and air-and-missile defense, the Army is gung-ho to modernize.
Already in the pipeline are improvements in weapons and equipment, such as developing the next generation of night-vision goggles to ensure their soldiers “own the night,” Army officials have said.
The current version of night-vision goggles makes use of ambient light from the moon and stars. Enhanced versions have incorporated infrared and thermal displays, but they are also bulkier and heavier.
Future technology could produce night-vision goggles that resemble binoculars and are both lightweight and easy to use, with the capability to zoom in and out and refocus like high-end cameras, while providing data through a heads-up display.
Robotics will also play an increasingly bigger role in the Army’s future. Like air drones, robots could be used to explore dangerous or hostile locations while relaying information to commanders.
Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley recently said the Army needed to embrace emerging technologies such as robotics and artificial intelligence to stay ahead of adversaries.
“Robotics is here. It is real,” Milley said. “We are talking about vehicles that are both manned and unmanned … every vehicle is going to have the capability to be robotic.”
The Futures Command will also look at better ways to use weapons and equipment.
“It’s not just a matter of the best equipment but it’s also a matter of how you employ it,” Seiber said. “You get all those ideas and the materiel and mash that together in order to make our Army the best in the world.”
The Army recognizes its greatest shortcoming is the bureaucratic inertia and a hierarchical culture that inhibits collaboration and communication across departments.
“We now must reform how we modernize the Army,” McCarthy said at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual convention in October. The new Futures Command will bring together the modernization process “under one roof,” he said.
The driving question, Seiber said, is “how do we get the best stuff to our soldiers in the fastest amount of time with the best value for the taxpayer?”
Years ago, that question was answered by the defense industry, which took the lead in a designing new technology. The Department of Defense, for example, launched the Global Positioning System in the early 1970s.
But now a lot of technical innovations are driven by the high-tech business sector and the military has had to adapt to the way business is done in that world. “So it’s about becoming more open and agile and innovative,” Seiber said.
The Futures Command will be run by a four-star general, and the headquarters would have a staff of about 500, most of them civilians.
Mike Rosa, the Dallas Regional Chamber’s senior vice president for economic development that in looking at areas where the key criteria include an innovative ecosystem and a strong tech workforce,” the DFW Region begins from a position of strength.
“Our tech workforce in DFW is large and growing at one of the fastest rates in the country and we have the highest concentration of technology workers in Texas living right here,” Rosa said in an emailed response.
Dallas also has been recognized as a city of the future when it comes to overall innovation readiness, Rosa said, ranking #3 in the Milken Institute’s 2017 “Best-Performing Cities” report — and outperforming New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and other large cities.
Two years ago, the Army selected Austin as one of its four locations for its own tech startup, the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental, or DIUx. The organization is headquartered in Mountain View, Calif., and along with Austin has offices in Boston and in the Washington, D.C., area.
Besides the three cities in Texas, Boston and Raleigh, other locations in the running for the Futures Command are Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Diego, San Francisco and Seattle.
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